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The new narratives of history in India

Photo: Wikipedia

By Ananya S Guha

History is a thin wraith today. It has been seamlessly crafted into the politics of the times. Three instances warrant our attention: first, the Taj Mahal; second, the movie Padmavati; third, the Somnath Temple. In all three, politics and politicians have been involved in the controversy and verbal battles.

In the case of the Taj Mahal, it was not apparently mentioned in the brochure of the Tourism Dept of the Govt of Uttar Pradesh. To this, some responded that the fame of Taj Mahal is universal and it need not be mentioned anywhere. Then the Chief Minister of the state joined the imbroglio, declaring that it was a site of international tourist importance. He personally visited it with much fanfare and declared a cleanliness campaign there. Just around the same time, a Swiss couple was beaten up by some youth in Fatehpur Sikri, which was thought to be connected with the Taj Mahal controversy, prima facie. However, no connection was found between the two.

The second controversy wove around the legendary Rajput Queen Padmini, in the movie, Padmavati, based actually on a poem and not on history. The film was not even released when a Rajput group accused the director of insulting the queen, who committed Jauhar on the sacrificial pyre, for depicting a supposed relationship between the Muslim king, Alaud-din Khilji and Hindu queen, Padmini. The trouble spread to other adjoining states of the country, even to South India as political parties of diverse opinions joined the fray to protest against an attack on Rajput sentiments. Even before the film was released, tensions simmered and debates continued on television channels.

The third and the latest is Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the Somnath Temple. It was alleged that he did so to garner Hindu votes. Then his visit was given a controversial twist with the claim that he signed the register meant for non-Hindus. Some revisited history and pointed out how his great-grandfather, Pandit Nehru, had opposed spending state resources to rebuild the temple. The subtext of Mahmud of Ghazni’s repeated sacking of the temple was not difficult to read in the way the right-wing invoked Hindu sentiment during the controversy.

In all three events, it is history which is a casualty. A majestic architectural wonder has been demeaned. A movie based on a poem has been distorted beyond proportions. And, a visit to a temple has been politicized.

History as we have learnt in school text books is based on chronological facts. Facts on the other hand may or may not represent history. E. H. Carr’s classic example of Cleopatra’s nose is a case in point. But history is constituted by narrative, society, people, culture, architecture and not just record of wars and battles. Yes, they are an integral part of episodic history, but not necessarily a part of a historical vision.

The present narrative, we hope, will not be recorded in the annals of the history of our nation. Making such petty debates and tirades will only make history a slaughter house for those we hate. Surely, history cannot suffer from such an ignominy of crisis.

In these three episodes, history has suffered mainly because of the intrusion of contemporary politics. Both the ruling powers and those opposing it have chosen historical targets, the issue of Muslims versus Hindus, Muslim antagonism in India, deification of kings and queens as historical facts. But in the process they have destroyed the true historical artefacts (Taj Mahal, Padmini’s sacrifice, and the magnificent temple at Somnath) by subjecting them to present political issues. Both the main actors in such a theatre of the absurd have willingly destroyed the imaginative process of history: that the Taj Mahal is a monument of love, that Padmini embodied sacrifice and love, and that the Somnath temple after suffering from the marauders got back its rightful place. All these historical facts have been tainted in present day politics. Our present-day politics seeks to destroy the beauty and imagination of the past. That history can be a fount of literature and the arts is painfully ignored. Instead, history has been marred by the political expediencies of the present. That in itself is a slur on history, its rationale, its scaffolding of monuments, and its grand pageantry, which spark the imagination of all.

Ananya S Guha 
is Regional Director, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Shillong.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Remembering Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in Bicentenary Year (1817-2017)’, edited by Dr. Irfanullah Farooqi, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.

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